I have a family in my memory that can’t be quite the family I grew up with. Each of us is more intense than we probably were, as lived moments collapse backwards into a few vivid scenes. Who knows if what I recall is what happened? That doesn’t matter so much compared to the lifelong impact of the almost mythic figures I made of my mother, father, older brother. They took on this psychic life while hidden just across the border on the other side of consciousness, and then emerged again, endowed with new power. I’m remembering now this inner Brother, a figure a bit magical, a bit scary, a bit bigger than life.
His daring filled me with awe and fear. If there was a hidden spot to explore, he would charge recklessly into it. If there was someone to fight, he would start swinging, if there was a cop to defy, he would stand up to him. And if Mom needed a champion, he would go after Dad.
For some reason, a scene that sticks in my mind is his piloting a small motor boat we had then. Being out on the water on a dark day made me anxious – but he loved the storms and would soar over the roughest waves at full speed, standing to get the wind and spray in his face with one hand on the steering wheel, grinning and yelling back into the wild water at each thudding crash across one deepening trough after another, pounding the backs of the sea-chop waves. In Long Island Sound, you could get good-sized swells – maybe nothing like the open sea – but to me it was a howling typhoon whipping up walls of water. I’d hold on for dear life in the stern by the roaring outboard – its high whining blade out of the water half the time – taking the whacks on the lapstraked hull right in the pit of my stomach and gaping as he grinned at the plumes of spray that splattered us. I was scared but felt his strength and sureness getting us through.
Then there were times his wildness turned on me in full fury and he’d beat me till I cried or, worse, he’d explode in anger and throw at me anything that came to hand, sharp or blunt, that could cut or break me. I never knew what he might do – if he’d be all friendship or all danger. I had to be on guard when the fear of him got into me. At those times, I could feel in my bones an unguided power looking for a target, and I didn’t want it to be me.
One day, he, no more than seven or eight, and I, maybe five at the time – were standing on the balcony overlooking our living room and he was yelling to Mom down below. That living room, that balcony were the unique places of our house. The living room had a soaring cathedral ceiling buttressed by huge dark beams that joined the spine of an A-frame. That space took the full two-storey height of the house’s front half. At one end was a shallow balcony opening from the upstairs hall in the rear portion of the house. A dark wooden railing kept us from falling onto the floor below. If we sat there with our backs to that railing and looked up, we had a richly contemplative view of the most wildly out-of-character object of our childhood. Afixed to the wall above us was an oil painting of a topless guitar-playing blond beauty who lured the two of us to that spot for endless secret viewings. God knows how it got there – it was something no one ever talked about. But there she was, her eyes never deigning to look down on us but gazing forever off-stage right.
Mom, angry about something that had to do with us, sat below – it seemed like a hundred yards away at the far end of the room in Dad’s big armchair, her feet on the ottoman, her scowled face rigid, her unreading eyes stalled on a book she held open. She wouldn’t respond to my brother’s repeated calls to get her attention. Mom! Mom! MOM! We both felt chilled by the inimitable and silent fury that had wrenched her still face into a passionate frieze of refusal. I could see she wouldn’t budge or acknowledge us in any way, and I could see my brother ready to boil over. Suddenly, he reached around and grabbed a book off a small escritoire that had been there forever, right beneath the sacred Woman With Guitar and threw it at her with fastball speed. I watched it shoot across that long space and hit her directly in the forehead. Thud – it connected and she just flattened under the impact – that frieze on her face broke and relaxed into unconsciousness.
My brother and I popped our eyes at each other in panic and ran downstairs at what seemed like the speed of light. There she was – out cold, her head leaning back against the armchair cushion, her mouth half open, the stern face limp and helpless, loose phlegm trickling across her upper lip. We were never so scared – we cried – Is she dead? Did we kill Mom?! – and for those few moments broke open in a panic of free-fall into the unimaginable – no Mom! no – anything! What would happen, what have we done! No! No! – when she groaned, lifted her head, opened her eyes – my God she was still alive and we would still have a home and wouldn’t go to jail!
That was my brother, shoot and ask questions later. The feeling demanded the act – no thought about it. Well, I learned my lessons and became determined to hold onto whatever was boiling up in me. I would never hurl it out there at anyone. I was going to grab tightly every dangerous feeling and never let the damn thing see the light of day. That became the pattern of my life from those early days. Whatever truth there was in the memory, I took that fear and determination from it and plate-glassed a big part of myself away.
When talking with my family years later, I might test my memory of certain events against theirs. There was never a match. Either the incidents seemed not to have happened at all or had been completely forgotten. Those moments never took on for them the importance they had for me. I understand that, but still it’s a bit spooky to recall something so vividly that seems totally absent from the memories of the others who were part of what happened. Have you had that experience?
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I read your words and think on myself. Your story reminds me of myself unfortunately I relate to you and your brother. I have had both sets of those feelings running me and even my mother suffered as I . The only difference is that she acknowledged her issues and mine she taught me how to read the signs and cope as best as she could.with all the complex and conflicting emotions I Was lost, I didn’t know how to control them and was too afraid of putting my problems in her lap. Things only got worse over the years with the many friends and loved ones that passed on and the day my mother passed shredded my sanity (15yrs old) from that point on I became ever more destructive towards my self. I often found myself prowling the parts of town that are far from safe looking to give and receive pain just wanting to feel something excitement, fear and pain was the way of it and people thought I was happy ,outgoing , carefree and strong. How wrong they were.
CK – That’s a great observation: “it’s almost as if that book hit you.” That’s right – it certainly “hit” me, as did many other incidents like this. Everything stops and the whole being takes in the shock. You can’t feel it, but it keeps doing its hidden work – the energy of the impact keeps spreading. It amazes me that there’s one unconscious part of you working very hard to adapt to this thing – while consciously you have no idea – at least as a kid.
Evan – Different families is a good way to put it. At least the emotional paths through all those years together seemed so completely different, and the emotions are what mark the memory, in my case, most deeply.
Thank you, untreatable – things I can never forget can be trivial details to family or friends whom I thought were close and understanding of what I was experiencing. I guess we’re all so caught up in ourselves and our own reactions and feelings that we can’t make that leap into someone else’s inner state. Or if we do, it’s because we’re pushing our own aside, getting to be codependent.
There are areas of my past that I can recall to the smallest detail where others in my family can barely admit it took place. Normally the question other people will ask is why I remember it and what they do not realize is I can not forget it. Great post
I’ve had similar experiences. It is freaky.
It is intriguing too when we talk at length how each of us kids seemed to grow up in different families. Now that I’m into middle age I can how they all can be responses to the same situation. But the degree of difference is really extraordinary.
I’ve had that experience with memory too. It is a weird feeling, I agree when something that holds such significance to you doesn’t to others who shared it equally. Perspective is a powerful thing.
The way you tell the story it’s almost as if that book hit you, metaphorically I mean. And talk about using your words! Hehe Sorry, couldn’t resist that one.
It’s like it knocked a part of yourself into a state of near total unconsciousness for self-protection. That tends to be what we do when we witness and experience great fear. I know I do that, and then generalise from it.
But some, like your Brother, thrive on the adrenaline. Sometimes I envy that, but I fear it too.